In week before showdowns, plenty don't even show up

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There were heroic efforts, half-hearted efforts and a few no-shows in as curious a Week 17 as we probably will see in the NFL.

Here's our definition of heroic: The Washington Redskins exhausted themselves - and Clinton Portis - in a playoff-clinching win in Philadelphia, delivering one final blow to the Dallas Cowboys' season.

Half-hearted? That would be all the teams that pulled their stars early to avoid catastrophic injury. The Seattle Seahawks, for instance, ensured that Brett Favre would go out a winner in Green Bay when they played the B team most of the way in a 23-17 loss to the Packers.

No-shows included the Atlanta Falcons (44-11 losers to the Carolina Panthers), Cincinnati Bengals (37-3 losers to the Kansas City Chiefs) and the Chicago Bears (34-10 losers to the Minnesota Vikings).

Then there were the New England Patriots. They were so worked up over the prospect of claiming the third seed in the AFC that coach Bill Belichick approved Doug Flutie's historic drop-kick extra point and let quarterback Matt Cassel make the pass that could've forced overtime against the Miami Dolphins.

Curious. Maybe it comes with Super Bowl privilege.

It was no surprise, then, that the Patriots, champions of the AFC East, dropped a 28-26 decision to set up another Saturday night TV special in frigid Foxborough, Mass. This one will come in the wild-card round Saturday against the warm-weather Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Patriots' loss enabled the Bengals, champs of the AFC North, to renew their blood rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC's other wild-card game Sunday. The Steelers and Bengals split their regular-season series, and now phenom quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer will hook up once again.

The NFC's portion of wild-card weekend will feature a rematch between the Redskins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday, and a showdown of 11-5 teams when the Carolina Panthers visit the New York Giants on Sunday.

When the Steelers, Panthers and Redskins claimed the final three playoff berths yesterday, it meant there will be seven new teams - out of 12 - in this year's tournament.

Starting with the top-seeded Indianapolis Colts and the No. 2 seeded Denver Broncos, the AFC is loaded. The Patriots have won the last two Super Bowls and they have the poorest record, at 10-6, in the group. The Steelers are a sixth seed that nobody, at least not the Patriots, wanted to face.

The NFC bracket may be just as wide-open, but for another reason: There's not a dominant team in the bunch. In fact, the sixth-seeded Redskins, with five straight wins, might be the most scary team at the moment.

The No. 1-seeded Seahawks and No. 2-seeded Bears drew first-round byes and will be favored because of it. But upsets seem almost certain in the NFC.

Here's a once-through on wild-card weekend.

Saturday

Redskins (sixth seed) at Buccaneers (third seed), 4:30 p.m.: Tampa Bay pulled out a dramatic 36-35 win in Week 10 when coach Jon Gruden successfully went for a two-point conversion after a Redskins' penalty. Mike Alstott burrowed into the end zone for the winning points, although Redskins coach Joe Gibbs hotly contested the issue.

The burden for the Redskins is the short turnaround this time. They finished late in Philadelphia and play in the first game of the weekend Saturday. Yesterday's win was an uphill climb, even with six Eagles turnovers.

Jaguars (fifth seed) at Patriots (fourth seed), 8 p.m.: The Jaguars won eight of their last nine games in an extremely favorable schedule. They played only one winning team in the second half and lost that game to the Colts.

The Patriots seem primed and healthy for perhaps the first time all season. And remember, quarterback Tom Brady is 9-0 in the postseason.

Sunday

Panthers (fifth seed) at Giants (fourth seed), 1 p.m.: The Panthers went only 2-2 down the stretch, but thumped Atlanta to clinch their berth. Coach John Fox, a defensive coordinator with the Giants from 1997 to 2001, is trying to re-create Carolina's Super Bowl season of 2003. DeShaun Foster gave him 165 rushing yards and a 70-yard touchdown yesterday, which is a start.

The Giants' defense is showing signs of strain with a rash of injuries. In the past four games, the Giants have allowed an average of 24 points, but won three times. They need to get healthy fast.

Steelers (sixth seed) at Bengals (third seed), 4:30 p.m.: The Steelers controlled the first game in Cincinnati with the run and won, 27-13. They became engaged in a passing duel in the second game at home and lost, 38-31. Expect them to hammer the Bengals with the run, especially after watching Kansas City's Larry Johnson roll for 201 yards and three touchdowns against Cincinnati.

The Bengals' defense is in a state of shock, allowing an average of 31 points the last seven weeks. Roethlisberger helped put it in that state in Week 13 when he threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns. His three interceptions ultimately proved fatal to the Steelers.

In the division rivalry this season, Roethlisberger has thrown for 479 yards and five touchdowns to Palmer's 454 yards and three touchdowns. Even so, the Bengals can only hope to lure the Steelers into another shootout.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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